I was a nosy child. I was about six years old when I riffled through my mother’s file cabinet while she was busy somewhere else in the house and, by happy coincidence, found the journal entry she’d written about giving birth. According to my mother, I was “perfect.” I had none of the wrinkly redness of most newborns, no birthmarks, just pure beauty with a head full of dark hair that my mother, like God, pronounced good. That was almost twenty-five years ago, but I never forgot finding and reading that essay. It was clear, from reading her short piece, that giving birth ranked among the best experiences she ever expected to have, that it fulfilled dreams she had had for years, that she was terribly grateful not just to be a mother but to be my mother. It made me feel terribly loved.
Perhaps that experience, so many years ago, planted a seed that became the impetus for this book. When I discovered that thousands of women post their birth stories on the internet every day, that thousands of women read other women’s birth stories every day, and that this is a burgeoning market on the world wide web, I remembered my mother’s story and I realized that here was a book, a book that could explore this visceral yet extra-worldly experience of giving birth. The majority of men and women in the world have, at one time or another, given birth or supported their partners through that beautiful and terrible experience. Giving birth is a time when one’s best dreams and ideas–and worst fears and nightmares–coalesce into a single moment. Out of such moments are birthed stories that reach into the deepest place of what it means to be human, what it means to be a spiritual being, what it means to be loved and to love. This secret that turns in us, as the poet Rumi writes, this secret of pregnancy, of birth and life and death, is what also makes the universe turn.
Ordinary men and women who have somehow participated in this act of giving birth have written the essays collected here. All of the contributors have been transformed by their experiences, changed at some core level of their being, and this is what they try to define in their writing. For some, the experience was what it “should be”–without complication, a joyous event that caught them up in rapture. For others, the experience was everything it “shouldn’t be”–resulting in death, or mental health issues, or destruction. Yet all would agree with Pierre Laroche, who writes that watching his wife give birth helped him to understand not only her story–that is, “who” she is–but also her body, the parts of her, her “gears”–that is, “what” she is. This experience of giving birth extends and enlivens each person’s understanding of themselves and others, on both a physical and spiritual level.
Following is a brief exploration of the themes contained in the essays collected in this anthology:
Pierre Laroche explores the connection between birth and death in an extended essay about the births of both his sons, as well as the continuing struggles of his friends and colleagues who experience infertility, miscarriage, and the death of their children. He discovers his own impotence in the face of overwhelming sorrow, yet recognizes at the same time the joy in realizing that his only source of strength, his only solace, to himself and his loved ones, is the ability to offer his hand, to hold their hand as they experience this life of both pain and beauty together. Elisabeth Aron also expresses this connection between life and death in the death of her own son, Miles, shortly after his birth. She and her husband choose to affirm their commitment to life despite sorrow by adopting a little boy from Korea, who, she writes, will magically arrive on an airplane without epidurals, IVs, or surgery. Yet, in honor of his mother who gave him up, and because she understands the pain of giving up a child, she explains that she will remember every moment of his arrival and how he came to live with us and be ours.
Though Martin Edwards does not explore this tenuous thread between life and death, he does, like Pierre Laroche, give the fatherly perspective on the birth-giving experience. His irony, sarcasm and deliberate “bumbling new daddy” act (“Babies don’t know how to blow their noses. When Lisa first explained this device to me, I thought it was simply a straw you stick in their nose and suck. But it turns out there’s a little squeezy ball at the end that does the sucking for you. Thank God.”) give this piece its humorous edge.
Kiersten Foraste Shue contrasts her own experience of pregnancy and giving birth with those of African women in a village where her brother is stationed for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. In the course of the essay, she recognizes her own privilege in giving birth to a child in a western country, with readily available medical care; she also confesses the realization that she is weak because of these advantages, and that she does not have the same strength of will or survival skills that these African women possess.
Joan Labbe and Sarah Cornelius Briggs explore in a variety of ways how depression, severe phobia, and mental illness affect our experiences of giving birth and raising children. Joan Labbe overcomes her extreme fear of anything entering or leaving her vagina in order to become pregnant and give birth. Sarah Cornelius Briggs, who suffers from a bipolar disorder, gave birth easily but shortly after, she began to experience symptoms that concerned her: she wondered if she was entering a manic phase. However, her husband’s supportive acts, as well as his bonding with their son, allowed her to turn her attention away from herself and her disappointment in giving birth via Cesarean Section to the role she must now play as a new mother.
Both Anne Winterich and Sabrina Porterfield experienced difficult pregnancies. Anne Winterich, suffering alone in a Georgia hospital all the way across the country from her home in California, learns to meditate through her weakness and embrace the time of waiting before giving birth. Despite Sabrina Porterfield’s own weakness in body–she experienced a raging urinary tract infection throughout the pregnancy–and despite the culture shock of giving birth in Finland where she barely speaks the language, she affirms her love for her spouse and children who are, finally, sent as “living arrows” from her body.
Jennifer Mattern experiences herself as a “body,” something observed, something objectified by those who watch her gain an alarming amount of weight during her pregnancy. It is not until she gives birth that she feels herself, and her baby, move beyond the passive to the active–move into their identities as mother and child, becoming infinitely more than their mere physical flesh. Like Mattern, Jeannette Monsivais-Ruiter also experiences herself as a body, but a glorious body full of great possibility. Diligently practicing yoga each day, she anticipates the birth of her daughter, who carries within her the eggs of Monsivais-Ruiter’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. As she releases her child into the world, she realizes that she has carried this baby-girl-woman within her for a lifetime, that this is an ending but also the very beginning of the extension of her body through the generations.
Kelley Cunningham looks at the humorous side of losing control of her body, of being poked and prodded and medically examined, and of trying to control the act of giving birth. Also concerned with the body as a paraplegic, Annalysa Lovos discovers that local medical professionals consider her ”high-risk.” They would medicate her and create an atmosphere of medical intervention even prior to labor and delivery. She chooses another way, deciding to give birth naturally, at home, with a midwife in attendance. Through her choice, she is empowered and finds the courage to make other equally counter-cultural decisions about how to raise her child.
In a brief, poignant essay, Jamaica Ritcher Cousins mourns the death of her previous self as she becomes a new identity, one based on mutual need, recognizing not only her baby’s dependence on her but her own need of her child as she nurtures her new identity. Karen Deaver and Pam Rowan-Herzog both discuss the paradox of recognizing what is most important on a spiritual level at the same time as they become their most physical, material selves. For Deaver, this thrusting out of her comfortable, cerebral approach to life opens the door to her earthly, primal, mortal self–a realization that she is being re-born by this act of giving birth. For Rowan-Herzog, the journey from darkness to–out of the womb, into the world–is a journey that takes her close to God, the eternal, burning Life-Force.
The fact that giving birth has become a metaphor for so many of our other experiences suggests its importance as a milestone experience in a person’s life, as well as its importance on a grander, more cosmological level for the human race. One of the ways I began to think about giving birth while editing this anthology is that it is one of the most holy acts we can participate in because of its completeness, its wholeness, both positive and negative, so like the rest of our lives. At its core level, it is completely physical, completely basic to our bodies, completely natural; yet is it also fundamentally unnatural, causing us to contemplate all sorts of spiritual mysteries: the nature of life and death, the connection between the spiritual and natural world. Giving birth is a very non-religious, non-spiritual act; yet it is also a very Buddhist, very Christian, very Muslim, very Hindu, very human and very spiritual act. As the Hebrew poet and king, David, wrote in a prayer to his God:
For you formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are your works,
And that my soul knows well.
My frame was not hidden from you
When I was made in secret
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Psalm 139, New King James Version